Music with Mr Gray

My son is in Year 4, at the time of writing. At his school he is given a year’s free tuition, in a group setting, on an orchestral instrument. So he is now a few weeks into his second year of learning to play an orchestral instrument. He really likes playing, but as a new instrumentalist, the same as all new musicians, he has very few opportunities to play with other people. And one of the most fun things about playing an instrument is being able to play with other people.

Imagine what it would be like if there were resources available for children to practice playing along with someone else from a really early stage in their musical education? What if, even when you can only play a few notes, you got to play a load of different pieces of music and so learned that there was a lot of music that you could learn to play, not just the pieces set by your teacher? What if you could experience playing along with someone else and by doing that you got to experience why you need to feel the beat of a piece of music so you can play together with someone else, not just hear from your teacher that it’s important?

Well, very happily, that resource is actually available, for free (well for the cost of keeping your TV on for a while, and given energy costs at the moment, that’s not exactly nothing…. But still) and is easily accessible on YouTube. If you head over to the YouTube channel you will find play along videos specially made for young musicians, at the start of their musical journey, to be able to play along to.

Music with Mr Gray is a YouTube channel full of free play along resources for children to access for themselves at home, or for their teachers to access and use in their classroom teaching. There are play alongs available for brass and woodwind instruments as well as ukelele – one of the most popular and accessible first instruments for children to learn to play.

I was able to speak with Mr Gray about his YouTube channel, about where the idea for the channel came from, what he hopes to achieve with the channel, and what plans he has for the channel in the future. Now I spoke to Mr Gray ages ago, right at the end of term for the last academic year. When I spoke to him I asked him about his plans for the channel for the following year, and as it is now October some of those plans have already been put into action, so I will give a quick update on what is now available on this great YouTube channel at the end of this blog post.

So, can you tell me about your background, and how you came up with the idea to start your YouTube channel, Music With Mr Gray?

Well I am a music teacher based in Devon and I work in a primary school as a music specialist teacher. I teach all ages from nursery up to year 6, I cover the music curriculum. I have been with my current school for 8 years, but have been teaching for 20 years as a music specialist.

In our school, students in year 4 do a year’s worth of either brass or woodwind lessons, which is amazing. And I am a composer, I love creating stuff for them anyway. When I started working with these students I tried using various online resources that were already out there to help my students with their music lessons, things like Charanga. But using them I felt like it was too much too soon for them. The progression they expected from the students was so quick. I have worked both as a primary school music teacher and a peripatetic musical instrument teacher and I know that children’s progress with a musical instrument is slow and steady, especially when they are learning a musical instrument for just half an hour a week. I wanted to find some resources where the progression with things like the number of notes they can play on their instruments was really slow and steady. I wanted to give the children the opportunity to perform a load of music without having to learn many notes. I hoped they could get to feel a sense of achievement, that they have actually performed a proper piece of music. I couldn’t find that anywhere, so I thought I would write my own.

I must have done that about 5 years ago maybe for my students in school. Then in the last year or so I was thinking, I’ve got all these pieces of music and I want to share them. I did send them off to a few places that share online musical resources but didn’t hear anything back from them, so I thought I would do it myself. I watched a few videos about how to make things like backing tracks for YouTube videos and thought I would give it a go. The brass videos I made proved really popular and I did a bunch for ukulele, and then added some tracks for flute or recorder players, instruments my students were learning and that lots of young children learn to play.

So the idea for the YouTube channel, Music with Mr Gray came out of what I was doing at school with my students, seeing how they benefitted from that slow, steady pace but still being able to play and play along with a backing track, and I wanted to share that.

The fact that it is on YouTube is also important for me. I teach in an area of high deprivation. Obviously I know that access to music education is important and resources to support music education, but it can also be very expensive. With all of the increases in the cost of living, then paying for instrumental lessons, and other music resources is not easy or even possible for many, many people, and so it is important that children all over the country, not just the children in my school, have access to resources to help them make music when they are learning to play an instrument.

Tell me more about the videos you have on the channel

It can be hard for children to engage with music, especially when they are first learning how to read music – that can be really dull, learning what all these black dots on a line mean, it’s just a load of black dots. So I thought I would try to turn it into a game and make it more fun for children. I have just done a series of Chiptune challenges. The Chiptune challenge is a play along based on the idea of playing a video game and progressing through the levels like you do in a video game, only here the play alongs help children learn to read and play the notes in the C Major scale. In a video game once you pass a level you go onto the next one it is more challenging. Here as you go through the levels of the Chiptune challenge the music gets more challenging to play, either adding in different rhythms to play or different notes. We start off with simple, slow rhythms, and as you go through the levels, up to level 10 it gets harder to play. Each video is based on practising some of the notes of the C major scale – a couple of them have just a few of the notes from the scale, some use the whole scale. And it’s a fun tune to play with a fun and interesting, video games inspired backing track.

It’s been reported recently that the ukulele is taking over from the recorder as the first instrument that most children in the UK learn to play, have you found this?

Well we have our own ukulele club at school, so yes a lot of our children are starting off with there ukulele now. It is a good first instrument, it’s really accessible for the children and easy to stick to teaching them how to play chords and simple chord progressions in class, and I have seen an appetite for learning the ukulele increasing. But both ukulele and recorder have their merits – they are very different instruments, but good for young children and easy to start to play. They both teach transferable skills. So the ukulele taking over from the recorder at the moment? I think it’s partly down to it being a trend at the moment, and partly down to parents wanting their children to play ukulele and teachers being able to play it. I have done a number of play alongs on the YouTube channel for both recorder and ukulele. The ukulele resource on there currently contains about 20 play along pieces that are ideal for class/ensemble teaching, and they have the option to play the melody itself using TAB or to accompany the melody using chord progressions. There are of course, several play alongs for recorder players, and these work for beginner flute players as well.

So what are your plans for the channel for next year?

So my plans for next year, well really I want to post the kind of things that are people interested in and want to play! I want to build in more music technology stuff, using the computer to make music. I have done this with some of my students and their engagement with the project has been just phenomenal. For example I was doing a project with my year 5 students, and we were looking at various different ways of making our own music, composing music. We looked at Beepbox and making music for video games with it. Now if I had given the students a pen and paper and asked them to go away and write a piece of music there would have been absolutely no chance of getting anything out of them, but with beep box they were able to create these amazing pieces of music. Children just get how to use the computers, and I want to harness that really. So I want to try to find a way to use those interests more. Maybe more things like the Chiptune challenge and really just build on what is there already.

Update on Music with Mr Gray YouTube channel.

I mentioned above that I spoke with Mr Gray towards the end of the summer term, it is now October, so Mr Gray has been working away on the channel, and there are now lots more play along videos available for new instrumentalists including percussion play for tuned percussion instruments, like xylophones or glockenspiels. Mr Gray has added some ukulele tutorials including play alongs, and videos teaching you how to play some of the basic chords on ukulele, and some guitar play alongs. There’s even a sneaky peak as to what a music teacher does when they have an empty classroom and they have all the instruments to themselves.

So, if your child has recently taken up a brass or tunes percussion instrument, the flute, guitar or ukulele and you want to give them some experience with the most fun part of being a musician – playing along with someone else – then I would highly recommend having a look at this fantastic YouTube channel: Music with Mr Gray.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!


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